- Anthony Lane
- Brad McCall packed his bags and left the Springs last weekend. In Canada, hell join hundreds of other asylum-seeking soldiers.
The man's story sounds at least plausible. He and his family live in a motel. They're hungry. They need help.
Pvt. Brad McCall, standing on a downtown street corner, does not wait for the man's question.
Holding a cigarette in his mouth, the 20-year-old dips a hand in his pocket and fishes out a dollar bill.
"Here you go," he says. The man walks away from the pale glow of a nearby street lamp. Another time, McCall remembers, he gave away his only $10 just as he and a friend were about to buy dinner. The friend had to dig out a credit card.
"I've developed a love for giving," he says. Then he smiles self-consciously. "I must be the weirdest soldier you ever talked to."
It's fair to say that McCall makes an unexpected sight for a Fort Carson infantryman. He spends most nights and weekends off-post, hanging with friends or playing music on the sidewalks of downtown Colorado Springs.
Away from the post, he puts on a hemp necklace and conceals his Army-regulation haircut under a plaid driver's cap. He seems at ease showing tattoos that have caused him some grief among soldiers: a peace sign on his forearm, the skull of a Grateful Dead logo on his shoulder.
"I have guys calling me a communist," McCall says.
But that's nothing, he adds, compared to what he's heard since hinting that he wants out of the Army.
Soldiers tell him details of fighting in Iraq meant to make his pacifist blood boil. Soldiers who've been and returned say he'll see the bodies of dead little girls, if and when his unit is deployed. They goad him with stories of a soldier they say peeled charred flesh from an Iraqi civilian's corpse and ate it.
"I really respect life," McCall says, noting that his anti-violence views only took root after he joined the Army with visions of heroism and money for college.
"It's something I can't shake. I can't hold an M-16 without shaking."
McCall has researched the Army's policies for being discharged as a conscientious objector. He believes he qualifies. But proving it is another matter.
McCall says the structure of the military makes it virtually impossible to have his views heard and respected.
So McCall is taking his objections elsewhere.
He's going to Canada.
"They can shoot me'
Both McCall's grandfathers served in Korea. His father would have entered the Marines had he not been colorblind.
McCall heard stories of fighting at home, and outside he and other kids in his southern Alabama town played soldier.
"I just grew up around it," he says.
That doesn't mean McCall graduated high school with enlistment papers in hand. He'd become an avid reader and had developed a taste for bands like the Grateful Dead. He'd experimented with drugs, propelling him on a trip through a Christian home-schooling program as his family tried to get him cleaned up.
Confused and directionless, McCall did not call an Army recruiter until he was nearly 19. The recruiter offered a signing bonus up to $20,000 and money for college. He said McCall should have no trouble getting assigned as a cavalry scout, an exciting job where he would monitor the position of enemy troops.
When McCall signed up weeks later, in August 2006, his bonus came to only $10,000. He became an infantryman instead of a scout. Nevertheless, it seemed like a good move.
"My folks were tickled to death," he says.
Then McCall came down with MRSA, or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. The bacterial illness had McCall stuck in bed, and his three-month training period stretched to eight.
At the end of training, McCall was assigned to Fort Carson. He arrived in May as part of the 4th Infantry Division, and that's about the time he remembers questioning his decision to join the Army.
"Really, what hit me first was people talking about shooting other people," McCall says. He adds that he almost never fired a weapon after arriving at the Mountain Post. He started exploring different worldviews and faiths. He now describes himself as an "eco-pagan."
"I've been developing this love for life," McCall says.
McCall found friendship off-post. He met a taxi driver and yoga instructor named Robyn, sharing with her his doubts about the military. At night, he'd bring his harmonica and drums downtown, joining "Christer" and "Bobby D" for late-night jam sessions in front of a bank on Tejon Street.
Other soldiers saw the makeshift band and reported back to post that "the hippie's playing music," McCall says. He was told to stop, that he was essentially panhandling for money.
McCall continued playing. He also repeatedly tested positive for marijuana, he says, adding, "I guess I'm a little reckless right now."
McCall planned his final act of recklessness in the military for last weekend. Payday was Friday. McCall expected to be long gone by Monday.
"They can shoot me for doing this," he says.
More likely, he says, they won't try too hard to find him. He'll join hundreds of other U.S. soldiers in Canada. He'll go to college, in the States if he can get discharged. If not, maybe in Canada.
Jeffry House, an immigration lawyer in Toronto, has met with nearly 200 soldiers interested in asylum since the start of the Iraq war. About 40 are now his clients, and they all wait in a sort of legal limbo. Neither deported nor accepted as refugees, they await word on whether the Canadian Supreme Court will hear the appeal of Jeremy Hinzman, a House client whose claim for refugee status was refused in 2005.
House, who left the United States in 1970 when faced with the draft, says soldiers choosing not to fight in Iraq cite similar reasons to those that sent draft-dodgers and deserters north by the thousands during the Vietnam War.
"The nature of the war, I think, is very frustrating to soldiers," House says. Despite all the destruction, he says, some return home and say, "I never saw an enemy."
More than 50 soldiers trying to stay in Canada are getting help from the War Resisters Support Campaign, which is run by Lee Zaslofsky. Like House, Zaslofsky arrived in Canada in 1970. He'd applied for conscientious objector status in 1969 after he was drafted, but his application was denied. Members of his support campaign meet with soldiers after they arrive, connecting them with housing and legal assistance.
McCall hopes an attorney will be able to help him get discharged from the Army after he arrives in Canada.
On Friday, McCall packed his things and left post for what he hoped would be the last time.
Army officials notified McCall's family on Tuesday that he had disappeared. Charlotte McCall, his mother, says she's saddened and worried.
"This is not the Brad that I raised," she says. Her boy battled through illness to complete boot camp even when he was given the chance to get out, she says. She only noted changes in her son's outlook in the last couple months, and she ties those changes to the friends he made downtown.
"He's very easily swayed," she says. If he calls, she hopes she might convince him to come back.
McCall contends that staying in the Army could only lead to bad things, particularly if he is deployed. The fighting in Iraq has put soldiers in nerve-wracking situations where some have fired their weapons only to realize they killed civilians, he says.
"How would I live myself," he asks, "knowing I killed an innocent person fighting in a war I didn't believe in?"